the past is always present

keith gallasch: 2010 festival of german film

Soul Kitchen

Soul Kitchen


fatih akin

Akin, best known for Head-On (2003) and The Edge of Heaven (2007), both available on Madman DVD, receives warranted special attention in this year’s festival with the screening of his rarely seen early film Short Sharp Shock (1998) and, a personal favourite, the freewheeling documentary Crossing The Bridge—The Sound of Istanbul (2005) which explores Turkish music in many of its permutations—from various traditional forms to street music and punk. The musical diversity is astonishing, capturing the essence of Istanbul as a meeting point of cultures. Young musicians are voluble about their art in casual interviews while the more formal engagements with the elder statesmen and women of traditional and popular music are framed by fascinating historical footage and excerpts from old movies. The Bridge is impressive on the Madman DVD, replete with hours of additional music, but the big screen is the film’s real home, Akin excelling in conveying a vivid sense of the city. With adroit camera work and editing and German musician Alexander Hacke (formerly of Einstürzende Neubauten) as our guide the sense of a personal journey deep into this east-west culture is embracing.

Akin’s Short Sharp Shock follows three men, a Turk, a Greek and a Serbian struggling to survive in Germany by whatever means until fatally entangled with a gangster. The film, nominated for Best Film at the 1998 German Film Awards, will doubtless contrast sharply with Akin’s latest, Soul Kitchen (2009), described in the festival’s program guide as offering “the audience exquisite cuisine in this comedic look at a German-Greek chef running a Hamburg eatery who upsets regular customers when a new chef presents his nouvelle cuisine.” But the run-down restaurant becomes a success. To see how Akin has adapted his skill at carefully developed, closely observed drama with explosions of emotion to the substantial demands of comedy will doubtless provide a special festival pleasure. One thing is certain, Akin hasn’t abandoned his intercultural concerns.

Food, under the banner of Culinary Comedies, is one of the festival’s themes. Others in the category include Anno Saul’s popular Kebab Connection “about a German-Turkish aspiring filmmaker who dreams of making the first German Kung Fu movie while shooting commercials promoting his uncle’s kebab restaurant in Hamburg.” In his fourth contribition to the festival, Fatih Akin co-wrote the script.

shooting the past

The past plays a considerable role as content in the festival, from the middle ages to Haneke’s pre-World War I White Ribbon and an account of the young Hitler after that war in Urs Odermatt’s Mein Kampf, to Jewish sporting stars denied involvement in the Berlin Olympics in Kaspar Heidelbach’s Berlin’ 36, and a 1943 lesbian relationship in Max Färberböck’s Aimee & Jaguar. It’s then on to more recent times with films addressing life in Berlin in Friedemann Fromm’s three-part The Wolves of Berlin, the long-term personal consequences of Baader-Meinhoff-type terrorism in Susan Schneider’s The Day Will Come and the limits of Bosnian-Serbian war crimes trials in Hans-Christian Schmid’s impressive Storm.

Mediaeval history is addressed not only in von Trotta’s Vision (with the excellent Barbara Sukowa starring) but also Sönke Wortmann’s Pope Joan: “A ninth century woman of English extraction born in the German city of Ingelheim disguises herself as a man and rises through the Vatican ranks.” This fiction, based on the Donna Cross novel, features Johanna Wokalek (Gudrun Ensslin in The Baader Meinhof Complex). The big budget, the English-language shoot and a cast including David Wenham, John Goodman and Iain Glenn suggest the film is squarely aimed at the international market. Prominent German director Sönke Wortmann is one of the festival’s special guests.

The 20th century comes into focus with Haneke’s White Ribbon and then Kaspar Heidelbach’s Mein Kampf, based on a play by George Tabori. The young Hitler in 1910 shares a room with a Jewish bookseller, is rejected by an art school, feels suicidal and, at the bookseller’s suggestion, looks to a future in politics. Doubtless, as with Downfall (2004) there will be complaints about another attempt to ‘humanise’ the fuhrer. Kaspar Heidelbach’s Berlin ‘36 offers an intriguing ‘true story’ of a champion Jewish high jumper forced to return from Britain to train with the German Olympic team. In this way she will save her threatended family and the Nazis will minimise American government opposition to a games without German Jews. The Nazis add a newcomer to their team, a peculiarly masculine young woman on whom they pin their hopes to oust the Jew. It’s a rather plain, plodding film, if occasionally suspenseful and, in the end, rather surprising when you see images of the film’s actual subjects. For an alternative to Nazi machinations, there’s Florian Gallenberger’s John Rabe, “the true story of a German businessman who saved more than 200,000 Chinese lives during the Nanjing massacre in 1937-38.”

Max Färberböck’s Aimée & Jaguar, Germany’s official entry for the 1999 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, is set in 1943 and is another ‘true story’ again focused on women, this time lesbians, one a wife with four children and a husband at war and the other Jewish and in the resistance. Berlin-based Erica Fischer, the author of the widely published non-fiction book Aimée & Jaguar, is a leading feminist and another special guest of the festival.

The Wolves of Berlin

The Wolves of Berlin

Friedemann Fromm’s three-part The Wolves of Berlin, originally made for television, covers three periods of the city’s history at critical moments in 1948, 1961 and 1989 by focusing on a teen clique as they age and the world changes radically. Susanne Schneider’s The Day Will Come brings us close to the present. Like a good thriller the film initially makes its audience work at piecing together clues of all kinds about a female farmer and an aggressive young woman who seeks her out. A certain rhythmic sameness and a later inclination to melodrama don’t prevent the film from being an interesting study of how a 1970s terrorist can live in denial and face the challenge of exposure. I liked it better on reflection and as a companion work to the very different Baader Meinhoff Complex.

hans-christian schmid’s storm

Hans-Christian Schmid’s Storm is an impressive inclusion in the program. I was lucky to see a preview of this largely English language film starring Kerry Fox as a War Crimes Tribunal prosecutor thrown at short notice into the trial of a Serbian commander turned popular politician. What seems straightforward becomes quickly and dangerously complex in the manner of a good political thriller. But Schmid pays consistent attention to the realpolitik of the European Union’s attempts to defuse murderous local tensions by overriding ordinary citizens’ need to recount their war experiences.

Storm effectively addresses the big political picture while focussing on the pain of players and victims, with Kerry Fox excellent as a lawyer who finds her own life trapped in these contradictions. Fox creates a laid back persona, droll, determined, often blunt, but increasingly alert to political and emotional nuances that will test her own morality as events unfold. The fine widescreen cinematography embraces both intimate scenes and varied location choices.

One pointer: as Storm unleashes its series of climactic events you certainly need to pay attention to the political and legal machinations as they play out. Storm is suspenseful, moving and memorable, its story an unusual and admirable choice.

There’s much more to the 2010 Festival of German Film: more films on cuisine, thrillers (Anno Saul The Door; Maximilian Erlenwein’s Gravity starring festival guest Jürgen Vogel), more engagements with German multiculturalism (Burhan Qurbani’s Faith; Feo Aladag’s When We Leave) and films for younger audiences. German press and radio film critic Anke Sternborg, another of the festival’s guests, will provide the context in which to understand the diversity, themes and successes of the German film industry.

Audi Festival of German Films: Chauvel Cinema/Palace Norton Street, Sydney, April 21-May 2; Palace Cinema Como/Palace Brighton Bay, Melbourne, April 22-May 2; Cinema Paradiso, Perth, April 22–26; Palace Centro, Brisbane, April 28–May 4; Palace Nova, Eastend Cinemas, Adelaide, May 7-May 9; www.goethe.de/australia

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 22

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

12 April 2010